Up to 10,000 airline passengers may have been tested for coronavirus with reused nasal swabs in a scam that netted thousands of dollars for the perpetrators, according to Indonesian police.
Five employees for major Indonesian pharmaceutical company Kimia Farma were arrested on April 27 for allegedly washing and repackaging rapid antigen nasal swab kits, and using them on passengers at the Kualanamu International Airport in Medan, North Sumatra.
Indonesia requires all passengers to provide a negative coronavirus test before they board a domestic flight, and the company sells the test kits in Medan airport.
The scam had been ongoing for about four months, police said.
North Sumatra Police spokesman, Grand Commissioner Hadi Wahyudi, said authorities were still investigating the number of victims affected by the reused swabs.
“They started their crime on December 17, 2020. If every day they have 50 to 100 customers, the victims number are estimated to be about 10,000,” he said.
The suspects have been charged with crimes under Indonesia’s health law, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment if found guilty, and under the country’s consumer protection law, which carries a maximum five-year prison sentence.
Among those arrested is Kimia Farma’s Medan business manager. Police said each suspect had different roles to play in the scam, from washing the used cotton swabs, to repackaging the kit, and delivering the samples to the laboratory.
Police found recycled cotton swabs, recycled packaging, and 149 million rupiah ($10,000) in cash during the raid which netted the five suspects. Passengers paid 200,000 rupiah ($14) for each antigen test swab.
CNN has reached out to Kimia Farma for comment.
According to the South China Morning Post, two lawyers who repeatedly flew through Medan airport in recent months plan to launch a collective civil suit against the company for damages of 1 billion rupiah ($69,000) for each affected passenger.
Indonesia’s minister of state-owned enterprises, Erick Thohir, said in a Twitter post last week those involved should be subjected to “very strict punishment.”
Indonesia’s Covid crisis
Indonesia is the world’s fourth most-populous nation and has experienced one of the worst Covid outbreaks in Asia. More than 1.6 million cases and 46,000 deaths have been recorded since the pandemic began, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Earlier this week, Indonesia’s Health Ministry confirmed two patients with the Covid variant B.1.617 first identified in India. The country has recorded a daily average of about 5,000 Covid-19 cases in the past week.
Authorities are concerned about the impact of the upcoming Mudik holiday, in which tens of millions of people travel to see their family in their hometowns to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan.
To halt the spread of Covid-19 during Eid festivities, the Indonesian government has banned all domestic travel from May 6 to May 17. The ban covers public and private journeys, including cars, motorcycles, buses, trains, ferries, ships and planes.